Wednesday, July 12, 2006

Specialisation and cosmopolitics

I've been wondering if pro-am happenings favour generalisation and consensus communities. What I mean is that I'm trying to understand the similarities and differences between multi-disciplinarity (or inter-disciplinary) practitioners and jacks-of-all-trades. In biology, a specialist species tolerates only a narrow range of physical environments, whereas a generalist species is more tolerant to a range of environments. This question of tolerance becomes particularly important if we want to borrow from biology (and the threat of species death) and apply it to social and cultural concerns (or the everyday lives of people). A jack-of-all-trades is a generalist, but her tolerance only extends as far as her desire for integration, consensus and a finished product. This kind of parliament is different from the kind of assemblage that accompanies the convergence of different specialisations, or the cosmos assembled in a cosmopolitics / cosmopolitiques.

A few half-baked thoughts and questions: Multi-disciplinarity favours "poaching" from other disciplines, which encourages miscegenation and mongrelisation, hybridity. The specialist excels when brought together with other specialists. Specialisation fosters collectivity and social ethics. The jack-of-all-trades, the generalist, the professional amateur is an individualist performing individualist ethics with other people. (Update: Now that I think about it, I'm not sure there's any connection to pro-am economies or vernacular creativity, but I'm still interested in the specialist/generalist distinction.)

Along these lines, specialisation and the covergence of specialities - not consensus or generalisation - is socially good in its unintended consequences:

Science and the Theft of Humanity
Geoffrey Harpham

"The demarcation of fields makes it possible not only to achieve precise sectoral knowledge, but also to mark the progress of knowledge as limited sets of problems are solved, one after another. Compartmentalization also, however, creates a host of unintended consequences, and some of these have proved to be just as productive as the intended ones. By limiting the kinds of questions that can be posed, departmental thought intentionally screens out certain features of reality, and while this partial blindness can be counted as a necessary condition of modern knowledge, it creates the conditions for an interdisciplinary reaction that blends two or more approaches to achieve results unobtainable by either: hence biochemistry, sociobiology, genetic engineering, architectural ethics and countless other innovations that are virtually invited by the limitations of disciplinarity.

But the most exciting and unpredictable unintended consequence of disciplinarity is the opportunity it creates for poaching, which happens when one discipline opts out of the gentleman's agreement allotting certain questions to certain disciplines and starts answering questions it is not even supposed to ask. This is happening today. Certain disciplines of science—having endured the skeptical and even debunking attention of philosophy, history, gender studies, cultural studies and literary studies, not to mention 'science studies'—have for some time been engaging in a quiet counteroffensive by making a series of little raids, each one limited in its scope and aspirations but potentially immense in the aggregate, on the one question above all that has been ruled off limits for them—the question of the human.


Autonomy, singularity, creativity—each of these terms names both a long-standing concern of the humanities and a set of contemporary projects being undertaken in the sciences...These projects may well force us to modify our understanding of traditional moral and philosophical questions, including the definition of and value attached to such presumptively nonhuman concepts as 'the animal' and 'the machine.'

We must understand that while scientists are indeed poaching [humanist] concepts, poaching in general is one of the ways in which disciplines are reinvigorated, and this particular act of thievery is nothing less than the primary driver of the transformation of knowledge today. For their part, those investigating the human condition from a nonhumanistic perspective must accept the contributions of humanists, who have a deep and abiding stake in all knowledge related to the question of the human.

We stand today at a critical juncture not just in the history of disciplines but of human self-understanding, one that presents remarkable and unprecedented opportunities for thinkers of all descriptions. A rich, deep and extended conversation between humanists and scientists on the question of the human could have implications well beyond the academy. It could result in the rejuvenation of many disciplines, and even in a reconfiguration of disciplines themselves—in short, a new golden age."

See also:

Chaos and Feminism — A Complex Dynamic: Parallels Between Feminist Philosophy of Science and Chaos Theory by Mary Ann McClure

(via wood s lot)


Anonymous Nick Knouf said...


I'm not entirely sure what you mean by "pro-am" (I guess I've missed the definition of that term), but I'm quite intrigued by your demarcation of multi-disciplinary and "jack-of-all-trades" practitioners. I find that indeed, the multi-disciplinarian (perhaps not the right term, as I don't mean someone who disciplines in multiple ways!) exists in this constant state of cognitive dissonance, the difficulties in translating between multiple modes of discourse always present. Instead of trying to fit everything under some, possibly contrived, coherent whole, the person who straddles department boundaries instead understands that complete translation is perhaps impossible. Rather, you see how one term can be mangled through the process of translation into a provocative thing previously unthought. (I love the term mongrelisation!)

I'm definitely facing this right now as I start a reading group that challenges some of the closely-held assumptions of the local AI establishment, and some of the work of Philip Agre (especially Towards a Critical Technical Practice), have been immensely helpful in that regard.

Blogger Anne said...

nick - i put in a link for pro-am, and added a comment about how, actually, i'm not sure what all this has to do with that ;)

but as i said in the update, i'm most interested in the generalist/specialist distinction. and i wouldn't want to confuse the multi-disciplinarian with the jack-of-all-trades.

i was thinking that multi-disciplinary means *across* boundaries, and inter-disciplinary means *between* boundaries. (and there's a huge body of literature on borderlands.) but what about the *new* boundaries created by generalist integration?

if translation is only ever incomplete, as i also believe it is, then consensus is neither possible, nor even desirable. so now i'm wondering what that means for generalisation and generalists...

but back to your comment, i actually just added that agre article to my syllabus for the fall, because i really like the final paragraph :) and because i wanted to discuss with students this business of *bridging* disciplines. what is this process? is it translation? convergence? consensus? i dunno... ;)

Blogger DilettanteVentures said...

How about throwing this in the mix?

"It is important to briefly explain the differences between transdisciplinarity, interdisciplinarity and multidisciplinarity, with mutual exchange of ideas and corrections. Whereas ‘multidisciplinary’ means only that various disciplines
work alongside each other on one issue, interdisciplinarity implies the exchange of concepts and methods, which are incorporated into the various complementary disciplines.
Transdisciplinarity is a new approach to research and science which defines and solves problems more independently of specific disciplines,thus transforming disciplines and subjects by removing their traditional borders wherever a single disciplinary definition of an issue is not possible or useful."

That's from Florian Waldvogel's essay Each One Teach One. I happen to be one of the inter/multi/trans-of all-trades types. Two interdisciplinary grad degrees and an undergrad in "liberal studies" makes me the embodiment of that old joke - I don't know enough about anything to get a job, but I know enough about everything to annoy my friends.

Anonymous Nick Knouf said...


(I think I'm taking the devil's view here, and I'm not entirely sure I agree with these thoughts yet!)

Perhaps we're moving into a realm of discourse where true consensus is, as you said, impossible, and is perhaps undesirable. To look at this from Latour's point of view, perhaps the "consensus" we've seen over the past few hundred years is merely due to our misguided division of the world into nature and society; we think we can arbitrarily divide the world into these categories, leading to the belief that we've come to the "true" way of interacting with the world. Once we do away with that distinction, we see that we cannot so easily lump things in one category nor the other, leading to a need to understand the objects of the world from multiple perspectives rather than simply following the party-line of "x belongs in nature; I'll only study x from a natural point of view". The quasi-objects that fill our world today reflect this unnatural distinction.

So maybe there isn't a problem for generalists, and perhaps they should rather be termed "those-who-can-deal-well-with-cognitive-dissonance" :-) (Neologism to be coined later.) And maybe this is where the realm of discourse is heading (or perhaps I am merely projecting my interests in multiple disciplines onto this).

As for the process of being a generalist, I too am quite interested, as I feel my own studies heading down that path. Right now I do see it partially as a personal translation, as well as some attempts at "outreach" (for lack of a better term), the reading group I'm forming one part of that. But I'll be quite interested in what you come up with, as it might help me in what can sometimes be a lonely process :-)

Blogger Anne said...

dilettanteventures - The description of transdisciplinarity is intriguing, thanks. Arjen Mulder defined transurbanism as "urbanism plus transformation" and as a "theory of transition". I think that can be equally applied to disciplinarity, and is certainly hinted at in Waldvogel's passage. Good to think about!

nick - i only ever temporarily agree with anything, so let's start with consensus. for a variety of reasons i've turned away from that sort of collectivism but that doesn't mean i won't turn back ;) i think temporary or provisional consensus can be quite useful, for example.

but back to this generalist thing. i've always liked generalists, and have many times benefitted from the breadth of my own education. i genuinely believe that an anthropology undergrad is the best foundational arts *and* science education a person can get, and its stress on holistic understandings never ceases to inspire and inform me. i think this is also one of the reasons why i favour a coming together of difference. my best experiences with other people have always been when everyone got to do what they do best, and be who they wanted to be. nothing involves more trust than that, because what we can do and be is always (maybe only) related to other people.

this seems to suggest to me that i favour multi-specialisation, and then getting these people with many specialties (any and all kinds of specialties - not just academic disciplinary ones) together to do stuff. so it's possible that one of the specialists is a generalist, but she would have to have other specialities relevant to the question at hand, as well.

hmmm. i'm not sure where i'm going with this, so it seems to be a good time to stop and take a breath ;)


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